A wild slim alien


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Secret miracles

‘Memory encircles [Prague] with a wreath, a smoke-ring and the paper lattice of a valentine. I might have been shot out of a gun through all three of them and landed on one of its ancient squares fluttering with the scissor-work and the vapour and the foliage that would have followed me in the slipstream.’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts

The taxi driver’s English isn’t sophisticated, but he has sufficient patter to give us a blow-by-blow guided tour over the course of the journey from the airport to the centre of Prague. He points out a large social housing complex where, he says, many Ukrainian women live; they come to work in the city as cleaners. Conversely he tells us about the cube-shaped private hospital we are passing, and how many, many women from the States go there for cheaper plastic surgery than is available at home. Captive in the front seat, I do my best to engage, until the prejudice that seems to inform taxi drivers the world over shows itself in disparaging remarks about gypsies, the very people who are lauded in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy of books about his journey across Europe in the early 1930s, the first volume of which is in part the reason I am here, because the picture Paddy paints of Prague under snow in A Time of Gifts is simply (and typically) magical.

Today Prague is under sun rather than snow. Spring has barely begun – while the daffodils are out, the trees are blossoming but yet to leaf – and yet the weather has turned suddenly summer-like, as if especially for us. Like any sizeable city, Prague works and acts upon you at many different levels. It is the city of a thousand statues and a hundred spires. The spotlessly clean city of bubble-shaping street entertainers and caramelised chimney cakes. The historic city of defenestrations, spring liberations and velvet revolutions. It is also the city of Kafka and Kundera, of Miroslav Holub and Václav Havel, and of their literary descendants, names unknown to me. Simultaneously, it is a city of the past and a city of the present. The future, it is true, is harder to detect, but it is there too, behind the health and safety hoardings guarding building sites, and in the eyes or the sure-footed pacing of the city’s younger generation.

Soon we are making the first of many crossings and recrossings of the Charles Bridge, watched over by its succession of statues of saints, their robes and faces blackened with centuries of grime, a state that enhances their silhouetted outlines in any photos you take of them. Wenceslas, Vitus, John Nepomuk, Ludmilla, Christopher, Francis of Assisi, and Augustine, all are here, a panoply of saints venerated both locally and across the Catholic world.

We are not alone, of course. The bridge is teeming both with other tourists and with locals making their way between Old Town on the right bank of the Vltava, and the Little Quarter on its left. You have to stay up late or rise early to have the bridge even somewhat to yourself; we manage it once only. The crowds gather round busking bands, creating bottlenecks, but we are in no hurry and idle past one playing a Czech version of motorik krautrock on steel drums, and later a string quartet supplemented with an additional pair of hands drumming out rhythms on a cajón as they reinvent songs such as ‘Sweet dreams’.

Beyond the other end of the bridge stands the complex of baroque buildings called the Clementinum. Within there is not only an astronomy tower from which – being right in among its spires – you can take in some of the best views of the city, but also one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Images of the interior show it well-lit, but we are only permitted to see the library from its threshold with the blinds drawn, and under dim electric lights, which enhances the sense of the library having been untouched since the 18th century, but frustrates the urge to look at everything close up. The air about the books is deliberately chilled and rarefied, the hush almost visible. Is this all strictly necessary from a conservation point of view, or is it a piece of theatre designed to give the library an air of untouchable mystery? The question of what a library is for if one can tread upon its floor and take down its books only in exceptional circumstances is a vexing one. It seems that the space cannot be both a working library and a tourist attraction. The Czech National Library has chosen to preserve this particular treasure in both aspic and darkness. But then, only academic specialists might really need to consult one of its twenty thousand predominantly theological volumes, so perhaps it is not unreasonable to allow greasy-pawed tourists merely a glimpse of such wonders.

In his short story ‘The secret miracle’, Jorge Luis Borges has ‘Jaromir Hladik, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies’ dream that he has hidden himself from the Gestapo in the Clementinum’s library. ‘A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter. I’ve gone blind looking for it.’ At that moment Hladik is handed an atlas by another reader. Randomly opening it to a map of India, he instinctively touches one of the tiniest letters on the page, and hears a divine voice tell him that the time he needs to complete The Enemies has been granted.

I suspect that Paddy also found his way into this enclave of a library. No doubt he used his considerable charm to see it; or perhaps there was always an unofficial way to see what you wanted to see, in those days, the ones before mass tourism:

‘Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-line Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades. Along the shallow vaulting of these chambers, plasterwork interlocks triangular tongues of frosty bracken with classical and allegorical scenes. Ascanius pursues his stag, Dido laments the flight of Aeneas, Numa slumbers in the cave of Egeria and all over the ceiling draped sky-figures fall back in a swoon from a succession of unclouding wonders.’

Franz Kafka also haunts this city as I walk around it (as, I imagine, Kundera might also have done, had I been able to get past the start of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – that I didn’t is of course my failure as a reader rather than his as a writer). The low, long expanse of the castle – the complex owing that name more to its hilltop position than any especially imposing fortifications – dominates the skyline to the north-west of the city, especially at night, when it is lit up with a creamy golden glow, while the spires of the cathedral of St. Vitus, which lies within its precinct, rise as silhouettes of contrasting blackness. It is not necessarily the presence that specifically inspired Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle (which he began in the mountain resort of Spindlermühle) but I imagine he must also have had Prague’s seat of government in mind as he wrote it.

The Kafka Museum shares a courtyard with a riverbank restaurant and a sculpture of two male figures pissing into a Czech Republic-shaped pond. Apparently their watery urine spells out literary quotes, but whether any of Kafka’s are among them, I couldn’t tell you. The museum is darkly lit and somewhat disorienting. Glass cases contain photos, letters, and first editions, while a watery, rippling dream of a film projects images of Prague from the early 20th century. Like Fernando Pessoa, Kafka never married; the photos of three women with whom he had significant relationships – fiancée Felice Bauer, journalist and translator Milena Jesenská, and teacher Dora Diamant – and the letters to his employers pleading for a raise or time off for ill health are affecting, but perhaps an hour in the museum might have been better spent re-reading ‘The metamorphosis’ and a chapter from The Trial. But then this sentence on one of the information boards would not have struck me,  partway through a discussion of how the myths about the city and the writer feed off each other (one suggested derivation of the Czech name for Prague being práh, meaning threshold): ‘The threshold is a deferred place, a postponed end, an unfinished work.’ A secret miracle.

One of at least two statues of Kafka stands in the Jewish quarter, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was inspired by a scene in his first novel, Amerika, in which a politician is carried on the shoulders of a giant. Kafka himself now assumes that position, ironically becoming the great upon whose shoulders we now stand. The brass of both of his shoes has been worn shiny with rubs for luck. I have my photo taken doing likewise.

Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery; no-one who died later than 1786 is to be found in the older cemetery. But in the Pinkas synagogue adjoining it, the names of the 77,297 Czechoslovak citizens who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and subsequently killed in various Nazi extermination camps are written in careful red and black script upon the walls. The scale of the loss is overwhelming. I try to focus on just one or two names and curtailed lives. Rudolf Buchbinder, 1913-42. Ludvik Buchler, 1936-42. Upstairs, the exhibition of children’s pictures rescued from the concentration camp is almost unbearable to look at; again, I focus on just one of them, ‘A boat in turbulent seas’, drawn by Jindrich Triescheř, 1932-44. It is as bleak a rendering of a boat at sea as you can imagine.

This city of statues and spires and bubbles and chimney cakes is also a city of death.

Outside, in the old cemetery, a single magpie emits a harsh cackle; but then there is also the sweet birdsong of two great tits foraging in the earth at the foot of some ivy.  It’s said that owing to the yard’s confined space, the dead here are buried 12 deep. The gravestones are arrayed at every angle besides the perpendicular, some leaning on others for support. The script upon them is in Hebrew, so I cannot tell for how long these ancestors of the generations who died in the Holocaust lived, nor whether or not their lives ended in relative peace. There are little notes among the graves, lodged in crevices or weighed down with stones, upon which prayers or wishes or perhaps even secrets have been written, feeding upon the legend of the Golem of Prague. Its creator, Judah Löw ben Bezalel, a late 16th-century rabbi and an inhabitant of this graveyard, gave the Golem life by inserting slips of paper inscribed with incantations into its mouth, in an effort to defend his people from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms.

On a day of brilliant sunshine, we go to see the cathedral within the castle, but already in the middle of the morning it is swamped with others doing likewise. We confine ourselves to gazing up at its exterior, seeing how it shapes itself against the sky, just as Paddy himself had once done:

‘From the massed upward thrust of its buttresses to the stickle-back ridge of its high-pitched roof it was spiked with a forest of perpendiculars. Up the corner of the transepts, stairs in fretted polygonal cylinders spiralled and counter-spiralled, and flying buttresses enmeshed the whole fabric in a radiating web of slants.’

Prague is so filled with historical wonders that inevitably we miss out on all too many of them, like the colourful artisan cottages of Golden Lane, once the haunt of both goldsmiths and Kafka, and the Old Royal Palace, within which the Riders’ Staircase leads up to Vladislav Hall, big enough for indoor jousting tournaments. Both staircase and hall are hymned in A Time of Gifts, in which Paddy imagines ‘lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostrich-plumes under the freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep the bright paint that spiralled them unchipped.’

Our last crossing of the Charles Bridge is marked by a brilliant fanfare played from the steps of the Church of St. Francis by two men in black cassocks, heralding not a service, but a concert taking place there that evening. As with Golden Lane, the Riders’ Staircase, and who knows how many other miracles of history returned today to secrecy only through efforts of the imagination, we will have to take up the invitation on another occasion.

Clementinum photo: ccmailb. All other photos by awildslimalien.

 

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As rare as hen’s teeth

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Tim Hopkins of The Half Pint Press has been kind enough to print up and publish ‘Letterpress [n]’, one of my Missing letters stories. Having faced down the many challenges involved in realising his boxed version of The book of disquiet, typically Tim gave himself a fresh conundrum to solve, one requiring some serious letterpress jiggery-pokery in order to achieve the finished result:

You can find further details and photos here. If you’re interested in getting hold of a copy, let me know via the First contact page, and I’ll pass on the relevant information just as soon as I have it from Tim.

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To celebrate its appearance in print, and also The Half Pint Press publication of Peter Miller’s short story ‘Dusty Springfield’, a launch party is being held at the bookartbookshop on Thursday 12th October 2017. Do come along if you’re in London, as it will be a chance – rare as hen’s teeth – to hear me read…

By the way, you can also find me on Twitter here: @awildslimalien


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The visitors’ book: Fernando Pessoa, Bernardo Soares and The book of disquiet

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‘Everything depends on what we are and, in the diversity of time, how those who come after us perceive the world will depend on how intensely we have imagined it, that is, on how intensely we, fantasy and flesh made one, have truly been it. … We are all novelists and we narrate what we see because, like everything else, seeing is a complex matter.’

Sometimes it requires many more people than the author to make a book. Take the Serpent’s Tail edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The book of disquiet. It’s a version of the text edited by Maria José de Lancastre and translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Three earlier Pessoa scholars undertook the original work of deciphering the handwritten notebooks and scraps of paper from which the text was derived and put into some sort of order. Then there’s the infrastructure a publisher requires to put a book in the line of sight of potential readers – the commissioning and copy editors, the marketing and administrative staff, not to mention those responsible for its look and feel, like the graphic designer. And (assuming we are not talking about a solely virtual edition) let’s not forget the printer, who brings the book into physical being. It’s not often that we think of these last two roles as having an equivalence to the intellectual effort of editor or translator. But with the Half Pint Press’ boxed, letterpress edition of The book of disquiet, I think it’s only fair that we elevate Tim Hopkins to the level of de Lancastre and Jull Costa, despite (knowing Tim) his inevitable protestations as we try to do so.

Pessoa began writing what has come to be known as The book of disquiet in 1912, and continued adding to it fragment by fragment until his death in 1935. Tim has spent very nearly as long bringing his singular vision and version of the text into being, printing a selection of the individual portions of Pessoa’s words on paper ephemera – a roll of bus tickets, a portion of a map, a menu, pages from a ledger, gift tags, raffle tickets, a playing card, a postage stamp – but also on a variety of other materials which can take ink – a photographic slide, a book of matches, a wooden tongue depressor, a drinks mat, pieces of cloth and jigsaw puzzle, and even along the sides of a pencil. It’s been a labour of love, in the truest sense, just as Pessoa’s writing of his texts was in the first place, seemingly without hope of them ever being published. This artful and soulful recreation of the trunk in which the fragments of writing that form The book of disquiet were found brings alive both the ordinariness of the imagined life lived by Bernardo Soares, and Pessoa’s extraordinary rendering of his interior. If you add to this the extensive ferreting about which has taken place to source materials in sufficient quantities; the sheer variety of those materials; the ingenuity with which the individual printing challenges have been met; and the bloody-minded determination to keep going, strike by laborious strike of the manual press – I am as in awe of it as I am of Pessoa’s sentences. And what Tim’s efforts inevitably lead us back to are those.

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In one of the several hundred fragments of which The book of disquiet is comprised, Pessoa, writing in the guise of Soares, compares life to an inn in which he must stay until ‘the carriage from the abyss’ comes to pick him up. Soares says:

‘If what I leave written in the visitors’ book is one day read by others and entertains them on their journey, that’s fine. If no-one reads it or is entertained by it, that’s fine too.’

Any writer who is not widely read during the course of his or her lifetime might well need to think like this to be able to continue to believe in the effort of writing without a sense of the futility of that effort overwhelming and undoing them. But Pessoa’s subject was so often the futility of effort of any kind, and his writing about it so tenacious, that it becomes hard to believe it of him. Certain fragments towards the end of the Serpent’s Tail edition of The book of disquiet reveal that he was shrewd enough to guess that the trunk of texts and poems left behind when he finally caught the carriage to the abyss would sooner or later be discovered and disseminated. The visitors’ book was in fact a treasure chest of untold, unparalleled, gem-like literary fragments, and perhaps it was enough for Pessoa while he lived to know in both his heart, and in his astutely philosophical mind, that he was ahead of his time.

The translation by Margaret Jull Costa, one of at least four there have been into English, follows the thematic selection edited by Maria José de Lancastre, which while it promotes an element of repetition, makes the whole less random and unstructured. (Tim’s boxed version of the book reverses this process, which arguably makes it truer to what Pessoa had in mind himself: ‘I re-read some of the pages which, when put together, will make up my book of random impressions. And there rises from them, like a familiar smell, an arid sense of monotony.’) Themes – such as tedium, weariness, office life, solitude, dreams, love, writing – do recur and overlap, but there is more of a sense of accumulation than repetition as over the years Pessoa/Soares writes his way into and through these themes from ever-varying angles.

If you gauge a book by a desire to annotate the text or capture and save quotes from it, then The book of disquiet has few equals. When I read it, I find that the quotableness varies only according to my own receptivity and sensitivity. On a day when my mind has a greater or lesser number of cares which are distracting it, then Pessoa’s sentences can drift by me as light and free – or as insubstantial – as blown bubbles, evaporating with a silent pop almost before I’ve finished reading them. But on a day when I am, say, luxuriating in the bath, and the doors and windows of the inner apartment of my relaxed mind are fully open, then the words I read in my well-thumbed and wrinkled copy of The book of disquiet blow through that apartment like a freshening breeze, and I find myself wanting to capture between quote marks nearly every sentence he writes. Here are just a few of those:

‘Each of us is intoxicated by different things. There’s intoxication enough for me in just living. Drunk on feeling I drift but never stray. If it’s time to go back to work, I go to the office just like everyone else. If not, I go down to the river to stare at the waters, again just like everyone else. I’m just the same. But behind this sameness, I secretly scatter my personal firmament with stars and therein create my own infinity.’

‘Down the steps of my dreams and my weariness, descend from your unreality, descend and be my substitute for the world.’

‘One should abandon all duties, even those not demanded of us, reject all cosy hearths, even those that are not our own, live on what is vague and vestigial, amongst the extravagant purples of madness and the false lace of imagined majesties… To be something that does not feel the weight of the rain outside, or the pain of inner emptiness… To wander with no soul, no thoughts, just pure impersonal sensation, along winding mountain roads, through valleys hidden amongst steep hills, distant, absorbed, ill-fated… To lose oneself in landscapes like paintings. To be nothing in distance and in colours…’

‘The sentence was the only truth. Once the sentence was formed everything was done; the rest was the sand it always had been.’

‘I’m like a being from another existence who passes, endlessly curious, through this one to which I am in every way alien. A sheet of glass stands between it and me. I always try to keep that glass as clean as possible so I can examine this other existence without smudges or smears spoiling my view; but I choose to keep that glass between us.’

‘What is there in all this but myself? Ah, but in that and only that lies tedium. It’s the fact that in all this – sky, earth, world – there is never anything but myself!’

Sometimes when you read a fragment, it is true that you feel yourself succumbing to the same kind of tedium that Pessoa/Soares is describing – but then he hits you with a turn of phrase so beautifully crafted and so lucid in its perceptiveness that it leaves you as stunned as if the sun had suddenly penetrated a thick blanket of grey-white cloud.

I suspect many writers feel the way that Bernardo Soares feels. The difference may be that they are waiting with a greater or lesser degree of confidence for the torpor to pass, or for the muse to sing, and the story to emerge from the song; from what is initially a fog of shapeless forms within their minds. Pessoa remains or chooses to remain in that foggy state, and makes the tedium, torpor and solitariness the story. In so doing, ‘using my soul as ink’, he performs the alchemical transformation of which Soares believes himself incapable.

‘These pages are the doodles of my intellectual unconsciousness of myself,’ he writes. If so, why should we bother to be interested? Because the end results are not mere doodles, they are finely wrought and rendered fragments of Pessoa’s thought, passed through the medium of Soares, and sitting on top of a bed of submerged feelings and dreams. The fragments are ahead of time reports on the state of our twenty-first century minds and souls, full of acuity and insight about our atomisation and the relationship we have with our own selves. By some hundred years, and through his use of heteronyms, of which Bernardo Soares is but one of seventy or eighty Pessoa used during the course of his writing life, he anticipates the taking of multiple online identities in order to present facets of one’s self to the world. Perhaps inevitably this comes at a cost; from Soares himself, we hear the plaintive cry of someone within whom multiple personalities have run wild:

‘Who is this person I attend on? How many people am I? Who is me? What is this gap that exists between me and myself?’

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Some writers – the best perhaps, though that’s not always recognised in their own time – are the advanced guard in terms of the evolution of how human beings think and feel. They report to us how they perceive the world, and allow those ways of perceiving to develop and take hold, until what once was strange and solitary becomes understood, a part of the collective consciousness. It pulls you up short when Pessoa himself addresses this notion directly. It’s as though he is present in the (bath)room with you in some ghostly way, beyond what has normally been the case as you read him:

‘One day, perhaps, they will understand that I carried out, as did no other, my inborn duty as interpreter of one particular period of our century; and when they do, they will write that I was misunderstood in my own time; they will write that, sadly, I lived surrounded by coldness and indifference, and that it is a pity it should have been so. And the person writing, in whatever future epoch he or she may live, will be as mystified by my equivalent in that future time as are those around me now.’

In writing about The book of disquiet, I’ve come to realise that it is next to impossible to sum it up concisely, in any satisfactory, meaningful way. There is too much going on in the Bernardo Soares compartment of Fernando Pessoa’s mind; it would require a book of similar length to the book itself to do it justice. And you would surely only want to read such a book after you have read Pessoa himself, and have had the chance to make up your own mind. Because your book of disquiet will not be my book of disquiet, or indeed, Tim Hopkins’, de Lancastre’s or Jull Costa’s. Any one reader will navigate through its mosaic of thoughts, feelings, ideas and dreams using a different route, and be struck along the way by differing sentences and paragraphs within those fragments. And yet at the end of the book, all those readers who have been beguiled into investing themselves in his sentences will have a strong, perhaps even fraternal sense of Fernando Pessoa; all will have discovered the Bernardo Soares in themselves.


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Gift of tongues #8: Quisquose

For five or six days now, he’s been tapping.  Ever since Carolyn put the tulips in a vase on the sill of the kitchen window.  Mistaking the purplish-red of the petals for berries, perhaps.  Or – but no.  It couldn’t be.

When she hears him tapping she rises from her desk in the study down the hallway and ventures to look at him, inching across the kitchen tiles so that she can better see the glint in his sideways-on eye, the space-hopper orange of his beak, the sootiness of his feathering.  He looks wise.  Masterful, even.  They stare at each other, the double panes of glass between them until a sudden gust of wind spooks the bird into taking cover within the laurel hedge which encloses the view from the window.  She leaves the kitchen with the vase of tulips and sets them on her desk.  But still the blackbird comes and taps, two or three times a day.

By the sixth morning, she has quietened and slowed her movements so much that the bird does not flinch even when she puts her fingertip to the glass.  She waits for him to tap his beak against it, but it’s still a shock when he does.  As she feels the glass vibrate against her finger, a feeling of exultation passes through her being.

Each night when Carolyn gets home from work, she steps out of the car and pauses there in the garage, poised between three worlds; the world in her head, and the worlds outside of it, the exterior of work and the interior of home.  The twilit sky is the void between the worlds.  She sees the lights of aircraft pass high across it, and follows the path of one for a while, before looking instead for the emerging patterns of the familiar constellations.  She wishes there was a moon she could wish upon, to transform the blackbird back into the man who is gone, for by now she is quite sure that it is his reincarnation.  Genie or none, tomorrow morning she will open the window, and let the blackbird back into her world.

Quisquose

A definition of ‘quisquose’


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Gift of tongues #7: Multifoiled

She dreamt of chocolate; she dreamt she was chocolate, wrapped in alternating layers of silver and gold foil till she could no longer move a muscle.  The man wrapping her pierced each successive layer at her mouth with his finger so that she could breathe, but otherwise she was entirely contained.  All she felt was a twitching inside of herself.  But that was a physical tic; her mind was at peace, wrapped tight as she was – she had been absolved of all responsibility.  The only thing to do was to wait, drifting on currents of aimless thought and a growing ache.  She was waiting for the man to break her, to snap the brittle parts of her body with the foil still on; slowly to unwrap the pieces of her, putting each in his mouth, feeling her dissolve upon his tongue.  From being tightly wrapped, rigid, she would be made molten, and hers would be a liquidity that he might mould in any way he chose.  She wanted only to be the shape he desired her to be.  While wrapped in silver and gold, while melting about him, she gave up her right to self-determination.  And yet in those endless moments, he was the more subservient – not so much to the greediness of his own desire, but to the fulfilment over and over again of this urgent need of hers, which could only be sated by the cyclical sequence of stilling, breaking, eating, and remoulding.  She was couverture, she was Callebaut.  She was ganache, she was fondant.  She was salted caramel.

Lucky then that the man of her dreams was a chocoholic.

Multifoiled


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Gift of tongues #6: Hitherto

The afternoon was wan.  The day had gradually lost its colour, as if all the light was being sucked out of the sky.  Hitherto, there had been the definite suggestion of spring, a mildness in the air which allowed long-hunched shoulders to release all their tension at last after a long, cold winter.  But now that daubing warmth from the paintbrush of the sun was as good as a distant memory, and once again he suspected he would remain forever trapped in a one hundred year-winter.

Hitherto


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Gift of tongues #5: Oomingmak

When he hears the call of the tawny owls loud and unmistakeable in the otherwise silent night, he thinks of how if they were Strix aluco, they might spend the nights hunting together, flying silently – ecstatically – on the wing to drop extended talons down on dormouse or vole or beetle, or even the plump succulence of a frog.  Across the woods they would call to each other, first the long note of his drawn out hoooouh, and then the tu-whit tu-whoo of her response.  Once each had its catch, they would return to the Scots pine roost to feast together.  Later there would be the press of feathers in an ivy-curtained hole in the pine’s trunk, and just enough room to preen each other until morning came.

Past midnight, as incapable of switching off his awareness of the night as any nocturnal animal, his thoughts reverberate like the owls’ duet.

Oomingmak


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Gift of tongues #4: Ribbed and veined

Inside, we are all ribbed and veined, but thin as he was and livid as he had been, you could see bones and wires on the outside of his frame.  There was barely an ounce of fat on him; fury had burned it all away, until, if you took up a pair of mallets, you might play him like a xylophone.  The superficial temporal vein stood out on his forehead.  Once he had been both of the words tattooed on the knuckles of either hand: HATE and LOVE.  Had you seen him at the height of his fury, you would have thought that he couldn’t possibly have become the lover that he was – soft fingers applied with both a gentle intensity and an attentiveness to the needs of the body and mind he was touching.  Instinctively he understood that the greatest pleasures lay in furnishing his lover’s erotic imagination while never forgetting to feed the emotional furnace of her heart.  Of course, his head and body were not the only parts of him which were ribbed and veined, thought it was not so much this soft cylinder rendered hard which brought his lover to her knees as the gifts he had already given her, the scene he had already set.  He was all ribs and veins, while she was all ribbed and vaulted tunnels in which a lover could secretly hide, and arterial warmth, in which he could bask.

Ribbed and veined


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Gift of tongues #3: Sugar hiccup

He was in love with the sound of her singultus.  By extension with her, but it was the hiccups which had initially drawn his attention to her every movement and mannerism.  Sugar’s diaphragm was susceptible to the slightest provocation.  From the first time he had heard her hiccup onwards, he had been charmed by the almost apologetic tone and timbre of her each and every involuntary emission.  Sitting at a neighbouring desk, he soon took it upon himself to make sure that throughout the working day, she was watered with sparkling rather than still.  A graceful creature, her hiccups were delicate flutters and birdlike chirps, relatively speaking.  Sugar guessed that her desk neighbour was soft on her.  Secretly pleased to have an admirer who seemed not to mind her hiccupping (in fact quite the opposite), she did nothing to discourage him.  Under the cover of his desk, he found himself aroused, and it was always a satisfaction – hiccup – when the next one came.  He would steal a sideways glance to see in profile her breast rise and fall and her Adam’s apple bob.  Then – it made his heart lurch – she would put her slender fingers to her lips, as if to steady herself against the reflex action’s gentle onslaught.

One day he had the idea to record the sound of her hiccuping on his phone.  Surreptitiously, of course.  Lying in bed that night with headphones on, he played back his recording, allowing it to loop.  He listened to the cycle endlessly: the explosion of her hic, the fall of her cup, the fluting laughter which often followed, her valiant attempts to swallow successive hiccups down.  He fell into step with her, and had never felt more intensely alive than when he managed to match his long-delayed ejaculation to hers.

Sugar hiccup


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Gift of tongues #2: Alas dies laughing

‘Woe is me’ was the phrase which most often passed his lips and it was for that reason that both his family and his friends had taken to calling him Alas instead of Alan.  Conversing with himself, his habitually woebegone side always wrestled the straight man he might otherwise have been to the ground, so it was inevitable that he too would begin to see himself as Alas.  The name stuck, inside and out.  It was only when on his deathbed that he truly saw the funny side.  There really had been nothing to moan or worry about, compared to this, the painful end of it all.  Alas died laughing.

Alas dies laughing

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